So there’s an iron rule that just as you want to start getting worldly wisdom by asking why, why, why, in communicating with other people about everything, you want to include why, why, why. Even if it’s obvious, it’s wise to stick in the why.
— Charlie Munger
The most important question we can ask is Why?
Because answering it is how you figure stuff out and at the extreme, if we don’t figure stuff out we might die.
Okay that sounds awfully dramatic¹…Why?
Because everything humans have observed so far is governed by cause-and-effect relationships. For instance, we figured out very quickly that our bodies need food. All it takes is a few people dying of starvation to figure out that we better eat something; then a little trial-and-error (oops, not those berries).
Well, we want to stay alive.
To have babies that pass our genes along.
Boom. In five one-word questions we have hit the limit of the author’s understanding. We could have taken different routes, but would have likely ended up in the same place. What word or sentiment is more efficient and effective at doing that? The question does not guarantee the truth, but it at least illuminates the respondent’s logic, premises, and drives. If it does that, you are well on your way to the truth in any domain.
If this question is so powerful, why doesn’t everyone² ask it all the time?
I have an answer, but like anything else, go ahead and see for yourself*. My guess is you will find that people do not want to answer it. The truth about the truth is that it can get uncomfortable and people deeply dislike being uncomfortable. It is much easier to watch Jerry Springer than to ask To be or not to be?
In this light, it becomes painfully clear why at the exact same time it is both the best and worst question! It is extremely important, but no one wants to answer it.
This stuff sounds hard. Life would be sooooooooo much easier if we could pick something we can all agree on, like Winning! Everyone wants to win, right? Yes, but…
* If you end up being brave enough to ask someone why a few times, share your experience here.
- Lightening it up a bit, per Munger’s quote, if you want to be a better communicator, boss, or parent, begin including the why when you say things. You might discover people are more willing to do what you ask them to do.
- Wait, what about kids! They ask it all the time. Why does that change? Generally, because of a combination of fear, social penalties and power. Big questions can be scary, no one likes a killjoy, and eventually an authority figure gets tired of having to answer it and finally uses power to shut down the dialogue (e.g. “Go to your room because I said so.”). These conditioned responses influence behavior over time.